East L.A. is a mix of contrasts and fusion: sleek locales and pueblo panaderias, Eastern art and Mexican murals, mariachi and Morrissey.
Its vibe is current, hip. So much so, in fact, that its notorious past feels much more distant than it actually is (at least to this L.A. local). In the mid-80’s & 90’s East Los Angeles was known as one of the more dangerous areas around – home to some of the nation’s most formidable gangs.
But “drive-bys,” rival tagging, and acute violence feel of the past, ever more distant memories for greater numbers of Angelenos. Today, Olvera Street is vibrant; Union Station bustling; China Town livelier than ever. Even the graffiti has shifted – locals are enhancing the area’s sense of cultural integrity and pride via street art. There’s vibrancy in the air. And overall it feels safe – at least during the day. That’s a big change from years prior.
(Dia de los Muertos festival, Olvera Street)
The area’s recent revitalization is thanks in part to the dedicated daily work of a few visionary leaders, community members and mission-driven organizations.
One of the most celebrated and renowned of these is Homeboy Industries. Founded in 1986 by the legendary Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle, Homeboy helped transform the larger community of East Los Angeles (and beyond) by focusing on individual lives and what actually matters – providing people opportunities for advancement. In other words, “Jobs not Jails” – as Homeboy’s mission states.
On Thursday, October 29th our Cypress College Puente Program had the honor of meeting Father Boyle in-person and touring his extraordinary organization.
The day was both uplifting and solemn. Former gang members shared their deeply personal stories with our Puente group in a guided walk-through of Homeboy’s facilities –introducing students to the services and people that helped them turn their lives around. Our guide, Francisco, was one of the youngest C.A. residents ever to be tried as an adult for armed robbery. At the age of 12 he was locked away in a high-security prison in Northern California. When he was released decades later, he found himself in a new era. He had never driven a car, used a cell-phone, or accessed the Internet. With a face covered in tattoos, his painful past was literally laid out for all to judge. He wanted – needed – a new start to life, but didn’t know how or where to begin. His saving grace was a recollection that Father Boyle had visited him as a young boy in his first days of incarceration. He looked him up, discovered Homeboy Industries, and found his path to opportunity.
(Francisco’s story captured our full attention)
For individuals like our guide, Homeboy’s free services really do change lives. Francisco took advantage of Homeboy’s tattoo removal, life skills classes and education services – eventually obtaining his high school diploma. He then moved on to work in Homeboy’s case management department. Now he is in college – on path to receiving a Masters degree in drug and alcohol addiction counseling.
Individual opportunity eventually changes a community’s fortune. That’s part of what’s happened in East Los Angeles as a result of organizations such as Homeboy and visionaries like Father Boyle. It was a remarkable opportunity to hear and view this first-hand.
(Puentistas, 2015 – with Homeboy Industries Founder Father Greg Boyle and Obed Silva)
Following this morning tour, Puente students met-up with former Cypress College English Professor, Obed Silva, who now teaches Literature at East L.A. College. Aside from being an exceptional young teaching talent, Obed has an incredible personal story much in-line with those we heard at Homeboy. In fact, the Los Angeles Times featured Obed in a beautiful piece a few years back. The story is very much worth a read.
During the second-half of the day, Puentistas explored the area’s Chicano past with a stroll down Olvera Street. We stood at the site where the Rosas family founded Los Angeles in 1789, visited the oldest standing house in the city, dined on homemade corn tortilla tacos and Chinese food, and experienced the high-speed Amtrak and Metro lines connecting Downtown Fullerton to Union Station. (On an aside, both public transportation systems are phenomenal – clean, easy-to-use and full of many interesting people. In fact, Puente leaders Therese Mosqueda-Ponce and Kathryn Sonne connected with a University of Irvine professor interested in collaborating with our Puente program :)
The day was memorable; time well spent with a special organization and special people. It was also an uplifting reminder of L.A.’s multi-cultural past, the power of individuals to effect positive social change, and the hope of a fruitful, shared future.
The day culminated at the Anaheim Metro Station – beautiful architecture close to home.